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In this chapter the young soldier who has pretended to be a hero really becomes one. But, interestingly enough, Crane describes his heroism almost entirely in terms of animals. The young soldier, in his anger at the enemy, feels like a "kitten," and thinks he will develop teeth and claws. He yells back at Wilson with "a curlike snarl," and as he looks around him, "the fighters resembled animals tossed for a death struggle into a dark pit." He chases after the retreating enemy like a "dog," and at the end of the battle the lieutenant calls him a "wild cat." Finally, as he thinks about the battle, he realizes that he has fought like a "beast."
One meaning of these images seems to be that the young soldier has fought like a hero through animal instinct, another might be that real heroism in warfare does not resemble the young soldier's pretty dreams, but is in fact bestial. The religious imagery in this chapter backs up this idea. The youth has been a "barbarian," and has "fought like a pagan who defends his religion." The youth's heroism has a psychological explanation as well: his exhaustion has turned to a blind fury at the enemy, and he has been so angry he could barely think.
At the end of this chapter the sun again appears. As before, it reflects the young soldier's mood. No longer a red wafer, this sun is "bright and gay," and the sky is "blue, enameled."
Several incidents in this chapter remind us of events that have occurred elsewhere
in the novel. The death of Jimmie Rogers, thrashing about in the grass,
reminds us of the similar death of Jim Conklin, although Jim did not scream
the way Jimmie does.
The descriptions of the deaths of Jim Conklin and Jimmie Rogers do not seem all that horrible to us. We see worse every time we go to the movies or watch the news on TV. But death had never before been described this realistically in an American novel. Many readers at the time were shocked and disturbed by passages like this.
The "jangling general" who almost runs over a wounded man resembles the way the men who were carrying the wounded officer bumped into the dying Jim Conklin. The young soldier has overheard officers twice before. Once he heard the "gigantic" colonel who was silhouetted against the sky in Chapter 2 talk with an aide about cigars. Then during his flight in Chapter 6 he encountered another general, this one surrounded by a "jingling staff." He thought that he would tell that general what was really going on. He had heard him send in reinforcements, and express delight that the center had held while he bounced around in his saddle.
The encounter with the general in this chapter is slightly different. This time the youth's vision is somewhat more realistic. And what he hears is even more disillusioning than the exchange about the cigars. He realizes that the officers think very little of the 304th; the men have been proud of the way they'd been fighting, but the officer calls them "mule drivers" and says that he can easily spare them. Neither the officer nor the general seems to care that many men of the 304th will die in the coming assault. Fleming's thought that "New eyes were given to him. And the most startling thing was to learn suddenly that he was very insignificant" sounds identical to his meditation in Chapter 14 on the way battle had changed his friend Wilson. "The youth wondered where had been born these new eyes.... Apparently, the other had now climbed a peak of wisdom from which he could perceive himself as a very wee thing." The unimportance of the individual appears to be an important lesson of war, contrary to romantic daydreams where individual heroes triumph. The young soldier had hoped to hear "some great inner historical things." Perhaps he really did.
The theme of understanding things better and seeing more clearly is pursued in several ways. Because Henry and Wilson leave the fighting in which they have up until now been engaged, they are able to see the layout of the whole battle. They notice a road, a battery of guns, and a house whose windows glowed "a deep murder red."